Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Does Evolution Require New Theology?

Edwin Walhout
A recently retired Christian Reformed minister has published an article in his denomination’s magazine The Banner, entitled “Tomorrow’s Theology.” Edwin Walhout says on his e-book publishing site, “Being retired from professional life, I am now free to explore theology without the constraints of ecclesiastical loyalties.” His piece suggests vast changes are needed to Christian doctrine as a result of the “established fact” of evolution. The quick response from several in our Canadian Reformed community was to reiterate their warnings against those in our churches who, they say, promote the dangerous idea of “theistic evolution” and advocate the re-interpretation of Scripture on the basis of modern science. After all, they say, this is where those ideas necessarily lead, namely to the questioning, if not outright denial, of the truth of Adam and Eve’s being created in the image of God, originally without sin, subsequently falling into sin, and being expelled from the garden, as well as the denial of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, his virgin birth, his sacrifice, death, resurrection, ascension, and his imminent Second Coming.

When some of our critics see Walhout in The Banner, they see Reformed Academic. This is understandable, as we also have been talking about evolution, but also disappointing, since we have (we hope) been clear in our support of all Christian doctrines and of the Reformed confessions. Unlike Walhout, we do not argue for the re-interpretation of Scripture (or Christian doctrines) on the basis of science. Rather we call for the interpretation of Scripture with Scripture, central to Reformed Biblical hermeneutics. With respect to the results of modern science regarding so-called “origins” questions, we do acknowledge that there are multiple converging lines of evidence in favour of an ancient cosmos and even for the common ancestry of all living things. Now, especially in the latter case we do not consider this evidence to be incontrovertible proof, and we certainly believe God did something special in creating humankind. We do think it is important to discuss the scientific claims; it will not do to simply dismiss them a priori as invalid. However, we also continue to point out the limits of science, in particular the inability of science to explain the origins of the cosmos, of life, of humanity, of individual humans. (In a March 2012 post, Arnold Sikkema pointed out the validity of historical science, and also distinguished “origin” and “history.” Jitse van der Meer followed this in more detail in a subsequent post.) Four years ago we wrote:
We are all in agreement with all of Scripture and the Reformed confessions, including notably that Adam and Eve were real humans, in a real Eden with real trees (including a real tree of the knowledge of good and evil), and upon a real temptation by the real devil in the form of a real snake, really sinned, so there was a real Fall.
This Walhout finds outdated, but we have no reason to make any adjustments. Nothing we have written is similar to the questions and denials of Walhout.

R. Scott Clark
In dismantling Walhout’s article, R. Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, rightly points out (in an article entitled “Of False Dichotomies, Science, and Progress in Theology”) the false dichotomy in the notion that one must either accept a young-earth creationist position (à la Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis) or discard (or at least question) basic Christian doctrines. This dichotomy, incidentally, is one on which popular atheist Richard Dawkins, Walhout, Ken Ham and some CanRC leaders agree. Clark explains that there are several positions which do not require this polarization, identifying a number of other viable alternatives within Christian (even Reformed) orthodoxy which do not take Scripture to require us to take the young-earth view.

The theological problems in Walhout’s piece are self-evident. Let us identify also a few serious scientific errors Walhout makes. For it appears to us he has engaged in significant extrapolation beyond what the actual claims of modern science are.

Walhout seems to have conflated evolution and evolutionism (a distinction we have long attempted to point out but which continues to be studiously ignored by many). On the one hand there is a biological theory of evolution, while on the other hand there is a philosophical / religious worldview of evolutionism. Evolutionism assumes (incorrectly) that humanity is fully explained by science within a naturalistic theory of biological evolution. This is said to include human psychology, sociology, reason, morality, and religion. There is no place within this worldview for anything special about humans, such as their being created in God’s image, their covenantal relationship with God, their being recipients of divine revelation; there is no place for spiritual realities, sin, grace, purpose, etc. It is vital to realize that the biological theory of evolution does not settle, or even begin to address, questions of the origin or character of humanity as humanity. Nor does it touch upon the origin or history of the physical cosmos, or the origin of life itself. It can only touch on the biology of organisms including humans. But surely the Christian worldview recognizes that being human is more than having a certain biology. There are indeed scholars who work on evolutionary psychology and evolutionary morality, but human psychology and morality are clearly areas where other forms of knowledge besides the scientific are required. Especially for the Christian, the doctrines of imago Dei and sin are clearly not amenable to scientific studies; these are theological doctrines, which have huge ramifications for human psychology. One also cannot hope to explain all aspects of the human psyche without reference to the clear Biblical teachings regarding the unique position of humans among all creatures on earth, especially in terms of imago Dei, creation, fall, and redemption.

Walhout seems also to have adopted scientism, the idea that no statement of any sort can be affirmed unless it is scientifically supported. This connects with his thinking that questions regarding human psychology and human morality are fully amenable to scientific inquiry. He suggests that the historicity of the Garden and Fall is doubtful, asking, “Where is the scientific and historical evidence of a pristine origin and expulsion from that Garden?” It apparently fails to occur to him that science and history do not have the epistemological prowess to handle every question. We cannot expect each individual event or person from the distant past to leave physical or biological traces for our current study. And even if they did, science and history still cannot handle every question about these events or persons.

The way Walhout narrates scientific theory and fact further demonstrates his unfamiliarity with the nature and character of science. He refers to the theory of evolution as “established fact,” and calls for an approach which “embraces scientific insights.” This does not even begin to do justice to how theories function in science. The scientific enterprise is a search for truths regarding created reality; therefore, appealing to “theory as fact” (and speaking of “embracing” it as such) is unscientific, being instead rhetorical or political in nature. True, there are some dogmatic high-priests of scientism, such as Richard Dawkins, who attempt to brow-beat opponents of scientific theories into submission by raucous claims that evolution, or the big bang theory, are proven fact. This only demonstrates our point; such bully tactics are power struggles, not the humble calls for examination of evidence in support of (or opposition to) theories which characterize the true nature of science. If one considers the theory of evolution as simply a “fact,” one has actually displaced and underestimated it. A theory is a vast network of ideas which have moved beyond a preliminary hypothesis to being widely supported from multiple independent lines of evidence. Theories play a role in the recognition of patterns in collected observations, and in organizing and explaining disparate observations, often subsuming theories of more limited scope. Theories also allow for the prediction of future observations and contribute to a broader coherence among a collection of related theories. Similar to this misuse of “fact” is the failed attempt by some to refer to evolution (or the big bang, or heliocentrism) as “only a theory.”

Walhout speaks of “embracing” a theory (and there is even a book entitled Should Christians Embrace Evolution?). But in fact, scientists do not embrace, or even “believe (in)” theories. Instead, science speaks of considering the evidence for (and against) a theory, and acknowledging the strength of multiple converging lines of evidence. This assessment of scientific theories is a key task of the scientific community as a whole, and cannot be done by ecclesiastical assemblies. This task is open to every scientist regardless of their religious, political, ethnic, geographic, employment, or social context.

Walhout suggests much of Christian doctrine is in need of overhaul due to what he says is the fact of evolution (which as we have described he extends far beyond the biological theory). We would say that instead of revising theology on the basis of modern science, theology has to focus on what the Scriptures do teach, and this includes recognising and excising whatever science (or pseudo- or folk-science, or philosophy) theology has taken on, whether its origin is Aristotle, Plato, Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Morris, or Ham. Theologians in the past have, on the basis of the science of their day, made illegitimate adjustments to what the Scriptures were claiming. Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the most notorious, for he incorporated Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelian physics into Christian doctrine. As a result, at the time of Galileo it was common knowledge that while in our experience there are only the terrestrial elements (earth, water, air, fire), the moon and all the heavenly bodies are perfect spheres made of quintessence. It was further “well known” that the Bible clearly teaches such matters. Calvin, incidentally, took on this Aristotelian view as well in some instances. The story of Galileo and the church has very many aspects, but one was this problematic integration into Scripture of contemporary science. And so removing scientific ideas from our interpretation of Scripture is what ought to be done.

Much of the way in which many North American evangelicals, including Canadian Reformed believers, see “the creation story” has been significantly influenced by the modern scientific mindset and pseudo-scientific ideas of the creation-science community. This includes a fixation on timing, duration, ages, sequences, and processes.

Our desire at Reformed Academic is not to create confusion or fear, or to push evolution or old-earth thinking, or to replace the Reformed confessions or historic Christian doctrines. It is to educate and inform and to encourage respectful brotherly dialogue on the connections between academics and the Reformed faith, including (but not limited to) matters of science as they touch on cosmic and life history. And part of this may involve a recognition that some of what we thought the Bible clearly teaches has in fact been a previous scientific or “scientific” idea which we have allowed to creep into our hermeneutical process. The net result should then be a better understanding both of God’s Word and God’s world, which is central to the calling of the Reformed academic, and indeed to that of every believer. Theologians cannot answer every question, and neither can scientists. But praise God that we have both, that they can coexist and sharpen each other in a common quest for understanding and for the advancement of the Kingdom.